New Clause 11 — Restriction on certain arrangements under section 3(2)

Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 2:00 pm on 28th February 2007.

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'(1) Arrangements under section 3(2) relating to restricted probation provision may only be made with a probation trust or other public body.

(2) In this section "restricted probation provision" means probation provision which—

(a) is made for a purpose mentioned in section 2(1)(a) or (b); and

(b) relates to the giving of assistance to any court in determining the appropriate sentence to pass, or making any other decision, in respect of a person charged with or convicted of an offence.'.— [Mr. Sutcliffe.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment (a) to the proposed new clause, in line 2, leave out from 'trust' to end of line 8 and insert—

'(2) In this section "restricted probation provision" means probation provision which—

(a) is made for one of the probation purposes set out in section 1(1)(a), (c) and (f);

(b) is for the provision of assistance to the Parole Board;

(c) is for the management of approved premises within the meaning of section 9.'.

Government new clause 12— Power to repeal section (Restriction on certain arrangements under section 3(2)).

New clause 3— Conflict of interests—

'No private provider of probation services may, without giving notice in writing to the relevant sentencing court of any relevant financial or commercial interest, recommend a sentence in which it has a commercial or financial interest.'.

Amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 18, at end insert—

'(1A) In this Part, "a core probation purpose" means the purpose of providing for—

(a) the probation purposes set out in subsections 1(a), (c) and (f);

(b) the provision of assistance to the Parole Board;

(c) the management of approved premises within the meaning of section 9.'.

Amendment No. 2, in page 2, line 44, at end insert—

'(2A) The Secretary of State shall discharge his function under subsection (1) in relation to any core probation purpose by making and carrying out arrangements under section 3 solely with probation trusts established under section 4.'.

Government amendment No. 24.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

The new clauses and amendments give rise to some key issues. The aim of the Bill is to improve the delivery of services to reduce reoffending and better protect the public. It offers a pragmatic approach to tackling the diverse needs of offenders, which require a diverse response. I have frequently emphasised, as has my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, my appreciation of probation staff and the difficult and dangerous work that they do on our behalf. I have frequently paid tribute, too, to the improvements in performance that the probation service has achieved in recent years.

The current arrangements have delivered a great deal, but we need to deliver more. To do so, we must free the public sector from the burden of being responsible for all the probation services in 42 individual areas. We must give the public sector freedom to focus on its strengths, while opening the door more widely to providers in the voluntary, charitable and private sectors so that they can show what they can do. We must be able to commission services, not on the basis of ideology, but on the basis of what works in particular circumstances and who is best placed to deliver it. If a voluntary sector organisation has particular expertise in an area of service delivery, we should be able to make full use of it. If it makes sense to commission a specialised service across a region, rather than in small area-based packages, we should be able to do so. We should be able, too, to commission services that span custody and the community to improve continuity in the provision of services across different parts of an individual sentence.

We want to increase the involvement of the charitable, voluntary and private sectors, especially in interventions—for example, in the provision of programmes on offending behaviour, drug treatment and so on. Many voluntary sector organisations are already doing good work in those fields and we want to build on that. We want them to work alongside the public sector to develop expertise and strengthen partnership working so that a more diverse range of provision is available in due course. I know that many Members are concerned about what that means for the public sector. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I have made clear on numerous occasions, the public sector will continue to play a key role in those arrangements and we intend to proceed cautiously.

Most services will be commissioned from lead providers at area level, which will sub-contract to a range of other providers. In most cases, those lead providers will be part of the public sector probation trust, and we have always said that the bulk of core offender management work such as writing reports for courts and supervising individual cases will remain for the next few years in the public sector, which has inherited expertise in the field. We have consistently made it clear, too, that the Bill will not lead to a "dumbing down" in standards. Whether work is carried out by a trust or a non-public sector provider, it will still be delivered by appropriately qualified, professional probation staff. I accept, however, that the House still has concerns about the pace and scale of change, and about what might happen in future.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle 2:15 pm, 28th February 2007

I have a briefing from the Probation Boards Association, which refers to the regulatory impact assessment, which says that data sharing is essential. The association, however, says:

"Data sharing is said to be essential but information from the private sector is not available on the grounds of commercial confidentiality."

Will my friend address that point, and explain whether there will be a seamless transfer of information between private sector providers and probation services?

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

If my hon. Friend has read the Committee proceedings, he will know that the issue was raised then. We intend to make sure that transparency and data sharing continue. There should be no excuse for failing to maintain those relationships, and he will know that the private sector is involved in many aspects of that work—I will return to those issues later. He has read the briefing from the Probation Boards Association, and I hope that he has read, too, the briefings from all the organisations that have contacted the House, to learn where they stand on the issue.

I was explaining that the public sector has a key role to play in the arrangements, and I was discussing core offender management work such as the writing of reports for courts and the supervision of individual cases. I repeat that that work will remain for the next few years in the public sector, which has inherited expertise in the field. We will not dumb down standards, and the work must be carried out in association with qualified probation staff. I accept the House's concerns about the pace and scale of change, and I have been considering, as has my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, how we might best respond to those concerns.

We have concluded that it is right to give statutory force to our assurances to show the House and external stakeholders that we are serious about what we say. I have looked carefully at the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Mr. Gerrard and have held helpful discussions with him, for which I thank him. We tried to achieve a consensus on our aims in respect of offender management. I recognise his commitment to the probation service and his desire to secure the future of the public sector.

Photo of John Denham John Denham Chair, Home Affairs Committee

My hon. Friend just said rather quickly, in passing, that he was mindful of concern about the pace of change. One of the issues, which is not about the Bill but about the implementation, is that if the Government move too quickly in opening up contestability, the smaller voluntary organisations, which are sometimes the most creative and innovative, may be pushed out of the way by other organisations simply because they have the management capacity to put together bigger proposals. Can my hon. Friend say a little more about how, in practice, the Government will deal with the pace of change, and what assurance could be given to the House over time that things were not moving faster than innovation can take place at local level?

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who chairs the Home Affairs Committee, for the work that he does on these matters. The point that he raises about small individualised local voluntary sector schemes is important. I referred to that in Committee. We want to protect such schemes and we will introduce arrangements that protect their specialist needs. Those are the bodies that we want to support because they provide the means to reduce reoffending by their interventions.

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin Labour, Sunderland South

No sensible person is against the charitable sector being involved in the provision of these services, but we have trouble understanding why it requires the Bill in order to make that possible. Surely some charities are involved already, and there must be other ways that do not involve a sledgehammer to enable the Government to encourage more to get involved.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

The Bill is necessary to change the existing culture. It is important that we tackle reoffending. We all agree that reoffending rates, on whichever figures we believe, are too high, despite the excellent work of the probation service. The probation boards currently have a monopoly on the services that are provided. My hon. Friend will have received many representations from voluntary organisations to the House arguing that they could do more. We believe that the formation of the probation trusts will provide a wider answer and enable us to tackle reoffending as a community. Too often, that has been left to the criminal justice system and the associated bodies.

Before they commit an offence and afterwards, offenders are members of our community. In particular areas—resettlement is one that comes to mind—there is an opportunity for other organisations, whether voluntary, charitable or private sector, to come up with resettlement plans. That is what we want to achieve.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I anticipate my hon. Friend asking me to give way. I will give way and then get back to the main body of my speech. I want to hear what others have to say.

Photo of David Lepper David Lepper Labour, Brighton, Pavilion

I take my hon. Friend's point. In my area, the Sussex probation area, the probation service works with 19 different voluntary and statutory providers on managing offenders. Those organisations range from the YMCA to Working Links to locally based organisations. If there is a problem with probation boards in other parts of the country, would the Government not be better advised to deal with those particular problems, rather than with the service as a whole, as the Bill does?

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

The simple answer is no. If that work is being carried out successfully by that probation board, it will continue. Nothing that we propose in the Bill will destroy those links. One would expect them to be strengthened by local area agreements and by the involvement of local partners. They would be the priority of the various criminal boards and would be part of the partnership between regional reoffending boards.

What we are offering is enhancement. It comes back to what my right hon. Friend Mr. Denham said about the pace of change. There is no big bang solution. There will not be 42 new probation trusts by 2008. We want to implement the measures over time and by agreement to achieve what we all say we believe in—end-to-end offender management, building on the good work that is being done.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I shall make progress, as I am mindful of the time. I want to explain why we disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, whose commitment to the probation service I recognise. However, his amendment goes too far. His definition of core services is so wide that it would require virtually all probation services to be commissioned through the public sector. There would be no scope for services to be commissioned directly from a charitable, voluntary or private sector provider, regardless of the skills or expertise that that provider had to offer.

I do not believe that to be the right way forward. It would undermine the key objectives of the Bill. Nevertheless, I accept the need to do something. I have been particularly struck by the concerns that have been expressed both in the House and outside about the support that the probation service gives to courts, especially in the preparation of reports. This is a crucial and sensitive area of work which depends on trust between the court and the report writer. It requires a high level of expertise on the part of staff in assessing risk, the circumstances of the offence and appropriate disposals. It can be key to the success or otherwise of what follows in reducing reoffending and protecting the public.

Concerns have also been expressed about conflicts of interest, and Mr. Garnier will no doubt wish to say something about that later. I understand some of these concerns and, though I do not rule out for all time the possibility of some of that work being done in the voluntary, charitable or private sectors, it will in practice rest with the public sector for some time to come. It is the public sector, with its century of experience, which is best placed to deliver this work and it will be some time before the appropriate expertise has developed elsewhere.

For that reason, I propose an amendment that would require the Secretary of State to contract only with the public sector for the work that the probation service does in relation to courts. The amendment defines this area of service provision widely: it includes not only pre-sentence reports, but advice on bail and remand decisions, breaches and general assistance to courts. The provision could be repealed only by an order subject to affirmative resolution, so if at some future point the Government were to decide that the time was right to open up this area of work to non-public sector providers, they would have to make the case to Parliament, which would have the final say.

The amendment shows how we have been listening and goes a long way to meeting the concerns that have been expressed. I hope that in their contributions my hon. Friends will recognise that we have moved forward from where we were and listened to some of the concerns relating to court reports and the management of offenders. We want to approach the matter in the context of reducing reoffending. It is not an attack on the probation service. We understand that the National Association of Probation Officers, the trade union involved, wants to protect all the responsibilities of its members.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

Will the Minister explain to me in simple terms why both new clause 11 and new clause 12 have been tabled? Why is it necessary to insert in the Bill a mechanism for repeal by order, if it is the Government's intention to proceed in good faith with the provisions of new clause 11? We do not have automatic systems for repeal by order in any other Bill. Why is it necessary in this case?

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

That is a response to the requests for us to listen to definitions of core probation functions. There is no intention to jeopardise public protection. We believe that through the measures we can proceed very cautiously and deliberately, with the support of local areas through local area agreements and all the accountability regimes that are in place, and that if it is felt by local areas that there needs to be a move on court reports, we cannot do that without coming back to the House. We feel that that is a fair compromise that gives satisfaction in the area that we were told is the key element of probation work—court reports.

I hope that hon. Friends and colleagues on both sides of the House will be able to accept what the Government propose.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 2:30 pm, 28th February 2007

As before, I will endeavour to be brief because amendments other than mine may command greater public attention. None the less, I should like to comment on the Government's new clauses and on our new clause 3.

New clause 3 is wholly uncontroversial and nothing other than common sense. I declare an interest as a Crown Court recorder who has received pre-sentence reports from the probation service and will presumably, if I continue to sit, receive them from commercial providers, assuming that they are not placed in a special category and reserved to the probation service. It is unarguable that no recommendation to a court for a sentence should carry with it a hidden interest. Anyone who is recommending to a court a sentence of, say, community punishment should not be able to hide his or her firm's interest in that sentence. I hope that with those few words new clause 3 can be accepted.

On new clauses 11 and 12, I do not want to enter into the arguments for and against the outsourcing of probation services beyond the probation service. I wish to place on record, as I have by tabling an early-day motion, my admiration for the work of the probation service and for those who work within it as officers and staff. This is their 100th anniversary year, and I do not think that anybody would wish to detract from or diminish the work that they have done in very difficult circumstances. After all, they deal day after day with people who are extremely difficult to work with, such as drug addicts, violent offenders and sex offenders—broadly, people who do not feel that they have a place in society and see no particular reason to comply with the norms of social behaviour. None the less, the public service ethos cannot be monopolised by the probation service. Plenty of people outside it are willing and able to do that work. However, they should be properly regulated as regards their qualifications and properly monitored as regards their performance, and there should be no diminution in quality or in the provision of a 24 hours-a-day, 365 days-a-year service.

As Mr. Denham said, several small charitable bodies will not have the financial or secretarial weight to compete with some of the bigger organisations. It would be a pity, to say the least, if they were swept away by the bulldozers of big organisations which are equally well motivated but much better able to trawl up some of the easier contracts. I trust that those organisations will not simply pick out the easy ones and leave a truncated and underfunded probation service to carry on doing the most difficult work.

Earlier, I mentioned some figures about NOMS headquarters that demonstrate that the Government seem to be wedded to a centralised bureaucracy that condescends to deliver services from the centre to the regions, and through the regions to localities. I accept that they want probation services to be pushed out beyond the state sector, but they are making matters extremely difficult by spending much more money—£60 million—on the bureaucracy in the middle than the probation service can currently spend on the front line. If that is their attitude now, what will it be like when they come to distribute the contracts and to the third and not-for-profit sectors?

Mr. Heath picked on an issue that I was going to pick on myself—namely, that in new clause 11 the Government give, but in new clause 12 they take away. It is difficult to understand a Government who say that they want to push these services out beyond the state sector but then keep up their sleeve a legislative provision that allows them to amend, repeal or make law in this regard. That makes their arguments much more difficult to accept.

The Government need to be clearer about what they intend to do as regards subcontractors. We all understand that a service may be given to a big company or a big charity, but the Bill provides that work can be subcontracted to second, third and fourth parties. The Government need to clarify to the House and to their own supporters what they mean by the provision in clause 3 whereby such work may be subcontracted. New clause 11 mentions restricted probation services. We are owed a clearer explanation of where the restriction stops and how the work should be carried out.

A few moments ago, the Minister said, rather disarmingly, that the Bill is designed to change the culture. I have heard of Bills doing all sorts of things, but I did not think that changing cultures was what we were about today. I am a little puzzled. The Minister seems to be convinced in his own head, if nobody else is, that the Bill is essential in order to move probation services out to the third, not-for-profit and commercial sectors. However, given that the Government have already done things with the probation service that did not require legislation—this is the third reorganisation of the probation service since they came to power—his argument about the need for this piece of legislation rather falls through.

On 26 February, the Home Secretary complained in The Daily Telegraph that only 3 per cent. of probation revenue goes to voluntary bodies. However, the figure was more than twice that until the Home Office under this Government decided that it was not money well spent. Government top-slicing of probation budgets further skews the picture. Certain services are no longer provided by the probation service. For example, drugs rehabilitation money now goes through drug action teams, offender accommodation money is routed through schemes called "supporting people", and offender learning money goes through the Learning and Skills Council.

All those funds, which used to be part of the core probation service budget when the target for outsourcing was 7 per cent., are now outsourced. The Home Secretary can truthfully say that the figure is only 3 per cent., but that is only because he made it so. It is 3 per cent. because the Government pushed those elements into other quangos and agencies. The Home Secretary is setting up an Aunt Sally when he complains, in that charming way that he has, that the probation service restricts itself to 3 per cent. of revenue going outside. It does not—the Government make it so. If they can change their mind on the move from 7 per cent. to 3 per cent. without legislation, they do not need this Bill in order to move from 3 per cent. to 10 per cent., 50 per cent. or even 100 per cent. In that regard, the Government's argument for the Bill—forgetting the arguments that the Minister has with Mr. Gerrard—is deeply flawed.

I shall finish my speech now, as many Members will wish to speak on other new clauses and amendments. I shall, however, watch, wait and listen.

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak in this debate. I had anticipated that I would speak to amendment No. 1, which is in my name. Because of technical issues of which you will be aware, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it became necessary to substitute for that amendment (a) to Government new clause 11, which is effectively the same. At the end of the debate, I hope that you will feel able to allow a separate vote on amendment (a) as well as a Division, if it is called, on new clause 11.

The new clause and amendments address some of the core issues of the Bill. I appreciate all that the Minister has said about not wishing to move too fast in a particular direction. The fact is, however, that the Bill allows for all probation functions to be opened up to competition from the private sector as well as the voluntary sector. I am not suggesting that the Minister's comments were not made in good faith, but that is what the Bill allows. Who knows which private companies might be involved? We can make guesses—they would be guesses, because no private company is currently doing core probation work—that certain providers of private prisons would be involved, and that such companies would no doubt poach staff from the probation service; otherwise, they would not be able to find anybody with experience of the work. We have seen that happen in other fields.

Photo of Tom Levitt Tom Levitt PPS (Rt Hon Hilary Benn, Secretary of State), Department for International Development

Does not my hon. Friend accept that the quality of the contracts and tendering documents written will determine what service is provided? Does he have so little faith in the existing services that he believes that they would not win a substantial amount of the work that is, to coin a phrase, market-tested in that way?

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

I would have more confidence about the contracts if I felt that there was any chance that I might be able to see the details, especially on the bid to operate the contract. In the private prison service, if questions are asked about the nature of bids, the answer is that details are not available because of commercial confidentiality. That is one of the big problems. As for the ability of those in the public sector to win such contracts, I think that they would do so, but there is no guarantee of that. When bids are made that will be commercially confidential, the whole process is much more difficult to understand.

Photo of Patrick Hall Patrick Hall Labour, Bedford

In relation to the scenario that my hon. Friend has just described, does he share my concern about the future integrity and quality of training?

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

That must be a concern. The issue was discussed at some length in Committee, and the Minister will no doubt have comments to make about that. If I recall correctly, one of the later Government amendments proposes some basic qualifications.

I shall address the reasons given for the changes—that we need more flexibility and voluntary sector involvement, that some probation boards are not delivering a good service, and that reoffending rates are not going down—but I have still never seen any analysis of exactly how and why the proposed changes would lead to improvements. A business case has never been made, despite the proposals having been around, in one form or another, for the best part of three years.

I am not convinced that the Bill is necessary in order to make some of the changes that we would all want. The Home Secretary is already telling probation boards what percentages of their expenditure he wants to be used for contracting out. Nobody disagrees about voluntary sector involvement. We know that there are some excellent examples of voluntary sector involvement. Some work is done almost exclusively through the voluntary sector.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 2:45 pm, 28th February 2007

That point goes to the heart of what the Government are trying to achieve. My hon. Friend will be aware of some of the partnerships at the moment, and particularly of the one involving Rainer and Serco. Would he support their involvement in a partnership to provide services?

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

Rainer is an excellent example of an organisation that does good work. It has been saying this week, however, that it does not see the need for the restructuring under the Bill. I am not therefore sure that it is a perfect example for the Minister to cite.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I want to press my hon. Friend on this point, as it goes to the core of the issue. I do not share his view of what Rainer says about the Bill; it has some concerns about children being locked up, and we shall deal with that later. But does he agree—

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I appreciate that the Minister is answering a question that has come from the Back Benches, but he must address his remarks to the Chair.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Does my hon. Friend support a partnership between Rainer and Serco to provide services?

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

Some of us have said throughout the debate that we would like more partnership and co-operative working. Nobody has difficulties with that kind of approach. Rainer is saying that it strongly supports an expanded role for voluntary organisations. It talks, however, about the need for clear lines of accountability. It does have concerns about the proposals.

Photo of John Denham John Denham Chair, Home Affairs Committee

Perhaps my hon. Friend is going to cover this point, but the letter from Rainer that I have in front of me says that it has areas of concern but,

"on the understanding that these are addressed, we would urge you to vote in favour of the Bill."

I must admit that I took that as general support for the principle behind the Bill. My hon. Friend seems to be arguing, however, that it opposes the Bill. There seems to be some contradiction between what it has written to me, and what it has written to him.

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

Rainer obviously has concerns about accountability and local partnerships, which it believes have been addressed. Voluntary organisations are coming at the Bill from both sides. All Members will have seen briefings from certain voluntary organisations that are fully in support of the proposals, but other voluntary organisations that have significant involvement in probation work are making it clear that they do not want change, because they do not want to be seen as agents of the state. They want their independence, and believe that they are in a stronger position when working in a co-operative fashion with the probation service than if they were seen as in charge of probation work with offenders.

On the question of some probation boards failing, in every service, some people provide good standards, and some do not. Generally, however, our response is not to tear up the whole structure. If a school fails, we do not start to tear apart the whole education system. If there are failings in local government, mechanisms and pressures are in place, such as the best value regime, to encourage councils that are not delivering on particular services to improve. We are told that reoffending rates are too high. If we look at what is happening in the criminal justice system as a whole, however, that is not surprising. Probation services do not supervise every offender; they are involved in the supervision of some offenders. Reoffending rates are lower among those who are supervised by the probation service than they are among those who are not.

Prisons are overcrowded to such an extent that educational and drugs rehabilitation work is suffering badly in many prisons, and people are being moved around from one prison to another in an effort to cope with all the pressures. They might be in the middle of a drugs rehabilitation course in their prison when they are moved to another prison where there is not such a course—or not one of the same nature. There are also huge numbers of people in prison who have serious mental health problems, and there is nowhere near enough capacity to deal with them either inside prison or outside when they come out. On top of that, it is now required that serious offenders—particularly sex offenders, as we were discussing earlier—are subject to much greater and more in-depth supervision.

If reoffending is so important that it is the central issue, why has a target on that never been one of the targets set for the probation service? The Government have set a list of targets for the service, and it is meeting—or is very close to meeting—most of them, and it has been improving. Therefore, it is now being castigated for not achieving a target that has never been set. That does not make sense to me.

The service has been in its present form since only 2001, and for the last three years it has been under constant threat of reorganisation and privatisation, but it is, in fact, doing quite well—so why do we want to tear up the structure? Why are we proposing privatisation? I ask that question because, as I have said, the Bill allows for privatisation in any part of the service, not only in voluntary sector involvement.

I accept that the Minister has moved somewhat. New clause 11 is a shift; there is no question about that, and I welcome the fact that there has been that shift and that there is a recognition that at least one bit of probation service work should be fundamentally public sector. Unfortunately however, we have also got new clause 12. It allows new clause 11 to disappear by the passing of an order. That provides very little protection, because we all know how orders are dealt with and pass through the House, even when they address quite controversial subjects. I have in mind an order on a controversial subject that passed through the House in the past few weeks: the renewal of control orders under anti-terrorism legislation. Some people probably have not even noticed that that happened, even though the issue was extremely controversial when the primary legislation was dealt with. Even in such circumstances, little attention is usually paid to an order passing through the House two or three years later. Therefore, there are no guarantees whatever in what is being offered.

That is not to say that I do not trust the word of the Minister, because I do trust what he says: it is not his intention to move wholesale and to move quickly. I do not doubt his word for one moment. However, Ministers change. [Interruption.] As a colleague says from a sedentary position, that is perhaps especially the case in the Minister's Department. Departments also change. We hear that there might be some changes in structure soon—although I do not know whether that will happen—and that what we are discussing might cease to be a Home Office responsibility altogether.

I must also say that some Ministers in this Government have form—if I can use that phrase in the current context. For example, when foundation hospital trusts were introduced, we received assurances that we would move cautiously, slowly and gradually—but we did not. I have heard the same assurances on a number of other matters, but we did not move cautiously, slowly and gradually on those either. Therefore, there is some form which must be taken into account. All that can be guaranteed in respect of what the Government are proposing is that the national service will become fragmented, that there will be myriad providers, and that we will lose local connections because commissioning will be at regional and national levels.

I acknowledge that some things need to be done at national level. For example, electronic tagging is currently done nationally through contracts with a couple of private companies, and if the probation service has to deal with someone who has a tagging order it must make arrangements with the company concerned. However, many Members in various debates on the Bill have cited examples of good work, and what has struck me about every one of them is that it is co-operative work at local level involving the local probation board, or perhaps a local voluntary organisation or a local private company. That work is happening in a co-operative way and at local level.

Photo of Ian Lucas Ian Lucas Labour, Wrexham

I have a concern about my hon. Friend's amendment No. 2. It says that the Secretary of State can make and carry out arrangements "solely with probation trusts". It is my interpretation that under the amendment it would therefore not be possible to have such co-operative local arrangements between probation services and servers from the voluntary and private sectors. Therefore, all the cases of good practice that Members witness locally would have to stop if the amendment were agreed to.

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

I have had that point put to me before. I am unsure whether I accept that it is true, because I think that my amendment would prevent the Secretary of State from contracting directly with a voluntary sector organisation, but I do not think that it would do anything to stop probation trusts—if probation boards become trusts—continuing the current arrangements or deciding that in certain parts of their work they will contract or subcontract with a voluntary sector provider. It would only stop the Secretary of State doing contracting directly. I am sorry, because I am not a parliamentary draftsman, but if the amendment were otherwise acceptable I am sure that the Government could easily find a parliamentary draftsman to correct that problem. None of us wants to stop the sort of good local arrangements that currently exist.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

The basis of my hon. Friend's amendment is a reflection of the spirit of the system that has been developed in Scotland. What would be formed is a partnership model under which various functions can be agreed at local level and devolved to the agencies that are best suited to carry out those functions. Therefore, it would not be a centralised approach such as that developed by the Government proposal.

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

That is certainly the intention. It is important that we keep that localism if we possibly can. If the power is with the probation trusts, that is where it should stay.

The core work of the probation service is the writing of court reports, and the key role in the supervision of offenders ought to remain with trained probation officers. If they believe that it is necessary to bring in a charity dealing with drugs rehabilitation work, for example, or specialist work in resettlement or education, then that is fine; that should be done, and the more people we can involve, the better. I say that because probation officers have more than enough to do without trying to move into things currently done by the voluntary sector.

My suggestion is a compromise. It takes three of the six items listed in clause 1. It does not remove some of the other key elements of the Bill, such as the boards becoming trusts, or the Secretary of State having the power to deal with failing trusts and, if necessary, to merge them with another trust or to refuse to contract with them and to give their area's work to another trust. What I am suggesting would not stop it being possible to apply those sorts of pressures to a trust that does not deliver.

I do not want it to be possible for private profit to be made from a key element of the criminal justice system. This Bill is, to some extent, a dog's breakfast. The debate on it has highlighted the uncertainty about how it will work and who will make the decisions. Regional offender managers, who are talked about as the key commissioners, are not even mentioned in the Bill, so I am unsure what their role will be. I am afraid that we are in danger of constructing a system that will create more problems than it will solve.

Amendment (a) is an attempt to preserve some of the key elements of probation work in the place where they ought to be—with trained, qualified probation officers—while at the same time encouraging the wider involvement of the many local voluntary organisations which, as we know, do really good work and need to be so encouraged. As I said, I hope that we can have a separate vote on my amendment at the end of the debate on this group.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 3:00 pm, 28th February 2007

It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Gerrard, who will have our support if he presses amendment (a) to a vote. I agreed with almost every word that he said, but there were two things that I did not quite agree with. First, he said that the Bill as it stands will produce myriad providers, but the risk is quite the reverse. It will produce a consolidated, small number of companies and very large charitable organisations that will make such provision, in replacement of the current probation service. Many of the smaller, non-profit organisations that David Lepper mentioned will be squeezed out by these central procurement arrangements.

Secondly, the hon. Member for Walthamstow was mistaken in his generosity to Ian Lucas, whose construction of amendment (a) was incorrect. The hon. Member for Walthamstow was right to say that it would prevent the Secretary of State from effectively short-circuiting any local consideration in the provision of such services and ensure that such matters go through the probation trust. Such short-circuiting is surely what many of us who are concerned about the Bill's centralising aspects want to prevent, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not in any way be put off his own amendment by a criticism that is not based on a proper reading of its consequences.

Photo of Martin Salter Martin Salter Labour, Reading West

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that some of the voluntary sector providers prayed in aid in support of this Bill are in fact quite hostile to it? Has he seen the response of Pete Crossley, of YMCA England's prisons unit? He said:

"Any new arrangements should leave overall accountability with the Probation Service. The responsibility to protect the public and to manage the risks must remain statutory."

Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that it is important that we draw out the fact that elements of the voluntary sector are deeply concerned, as many of us are, about the direction of travel of this ill thought out proposal?

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and I shall return to that issue in a moment, if I may. The idea that the voluntary sector as a whole is crying out for this Bill and believes that it is an unalloyed success in achieving its objectives is quite wrong. Many of the larger providers—not just the small providers that I and the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion referred to earlier—are also saying that this is not the direction of travel that they wish to follow.

A number of reasons have been adduced for the Bill's core content, and we have accepted all along the line that there are some things that it is wise to do in the context of the probation service. We all support so-called "seamless provision", and we all want the probation service to work with the Prison Service in providing better care and management of offenders for the protection of the public; nobody in this Chamber would want any other result. The difficulty that many of us have is understanding why Ministers are so clear in their minds that this Bill will make those things happen better now than they currently do.

I want to make it very clear that I have a great deal of respect for probation officers, probation services and the work that they have done. I used to work very closely with a probation service in Somerset that was one of the most innovative and excellent in the country. It has been hamstrung by constant changes to its structure, and it has been concerned about whether the funds match the Government's and the public's aspirations for the way in which it exercises its duties. However, in terms of their personal qualities and management, the probation services do a good job. Do they always get it right? No, of course they do not, but let someone show me a public service—or, indeed, a private service—that always gets things right. We should start from a basis of respect for the probation service.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

The Minister nods, and I am grateful to him for doing so. Such respect was not immediately obvious when the Home Secretary gave his reflection of Johnny Cash at San Quentin when he visited Wormwood Scrubs. The main purport of his comments was to rubbish the probation service, which saddened me. If he felt that to be appropriate background music to the introduction of this Bill, he was much mistaken. This issue is of concern to many Members of this House, who might have wanted to look more positively at his proposals. However, he let the cat out of the bag: he showed that this is essentially a destructive, rather than constructive, measure.

Much has been said at the Dispatch Box about how the Bill will liberate the probation service and enable it to use properly the skills available in the voluntary sector, but I have yet to see any evidence that insuperable barriers exist to doing that at the moment. The Minister talks about a Bill to change the culture—a point that was taken up by Mr. Garnier. Bills do not change culture. Management can change culture. Direction can change culture. The day-to-day operations within the service can change culture, but one cannot change it through legislation. I fear that that is a wholly mistaken view on the Minister's part.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

The hon. Gentleman is just plain wrong. He said that the existing system has its weaknesses and needs to be supported. I am saying that the change in culture that we want is for cutting reoffending rates and helping offenders to be the responsibility of the whole community. Throughout our consideration of the Bill, our aim has been to widen the whole community's access to the offender. That is why the Bill is important, because that is how the culture and the management will be changed.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

If that is the Minister's intention, he is going a very funny way about it. He conceded earlier that there might be a role for local communities through local authorities. However, he is saying that boards will be established made up of business people, and they will talk to other business people about what provisions they might make under a contract, and that they will set contracts that communities are not party to—the point made by the hon. Member for Walthamstow—in order to establish in those communities a culture of support for the rehabilitation and control of offenders. I am sorry, but that equation makes no sense to me at all.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

I am sorry that I was not present earlier. My main worry is accountability. Like the hon. Gentleman, I represent a county area. We have a county police force—it was subject to reorganisation, however—and county courts, which are also being reorganised. It is not at all clear whether the form that the probation service will take—whatever that might be—will in any way fit with the Court Service and the wider probation services. In other words, there will be no accountability, which is an additional reason why the culture will be wrong.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. My worry is that this Government's general movement is toward allowing the criminal justice system to retreat from local accountability. We had it with the proposals for regional police forces and for the court system. All the time, the leverage that the local community has on the criminal justice system is becoming more and more remote. It is becoming a distant service, administered from Whitehall, and that is of great concern. The criminal justice system needs more local accountability and understanding of how to deal effectively with crime and the punishment of offenders in the community. All the factors that the Government bring into play tend to have the reverse effect.

I am not trying to be clever with the Minister, but he talked about the public sector being given freedom from being responsible. I do not want the public sector to be given freedom from being responsible. I want the public sector to be responsible, but that does not mean that it has to provide every single service itself. The prospect that remote organisations, and I include the Secretary of State in that, should be given the power to offload key responsibilities for the delivery of the criminal justice system in our communities to businesses or nationally organised non-profit-making companies, is an entirely regressive step. That is why it is important that the Bill is fundamentally amended.

We voted against the Bill on Second Reading. Unless there is serious movement now, we will vote against it on Third Reading. The Government have a last opportunity to accept the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Walthamstow, but I am given no confidence by the amendments that they have already tabled. As the hon. Gentleman says, they have tabled a partial concession, but they do not have confidence in it. They are not prepared to say that they are persuaded by the arguments put by Labour Members and others, have rethought the issue and are now putting forward a new model. Instead, the Government give with one hand and take back with the other. They propose a unique system under which a provision would be put into the Bill, but the very next clause is the capacity to repeal it. However, that repeal would not be by this House in primary legislation, but by Order in Council. That is not an illustration of good faith or of a Government who have listened and changed their mind. It suggests that the Government think that the application of a bit of sticking plaster will get them through today and see the Bill on to the statute book.

I have fundamental objections to key parts of the criminal justice system being privatised and I make no pretence otherwise. I am happy for the private sector to be involved in peripheral activities where it can add value to the operation, but dealing with offenders involves core issues that should be performed by operatives of the state in the form of the probation service. That is why I will support the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Walthamstow.

If I were concerned about a paedophile on the streets of my constituency, I would want a properly trained probation officer dealing with him, not an accountant or a business man. I do not want business people producing contracts for other business people to fill: I want people who know the business of criminal justice. I want the reassurance of having properly trained officers who know about the probation service doing that job on the streets of Somerset. I suspect that many other hon. Members feel the same way and will illustrate that in the way that they vote this evening.

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin Labour, Sunderland South

I support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Mr. Gerrard. I have no ideological objection to the involvement of the private sector in the criminal justice system if I can see a case for it. Still less have I any objection to the involvement of the charitable sector and I welcome the fact that it is already widely involved and could be more so if we so choose. I was one of those who persuaded the then shadow Home Secretary—he is now Leader of the House—of the desirability of introducing the private sector into the Prison Service. I could not see any other way of cracking the malign influence of the Prison Officers Association on the management of our prison system.

In the case of the probation service, however, I am not convinced that there is a problem that needs fixing, at least not with the sledgehammer envisaged in this Bill. I do not know where the proposal started, as the turnover of Ministers in the Home Office means that none of the present ones are to blame for any mistakes in the Bill. I suspect that it has more to do with the Government's habit, in many areas of public service, of throwing all the pieces into the air every so often and seeing where they land.

Photo of Martin Salter Martin Salter Labour, Reading West 3:15 pm, 28th February 2007

My hon. Friend understates the case. If the press reports are true, not only do Ministers change, but the responsibility for prisons and the probation service is to move from the Home Office to the Department for Constitutional Affairs. It is one of life's ironies that the last great public Department will, allegedly, be responsible for reforming a service for which it will no longer be responsible.

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin Labour, Sunderland South

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that piece of information, of which I was not aware. I look forward to debating that proposal in due course.

As far as probation is concerned, I cannot see a problem that needs fixing. In my area in Northumberland, the probation service provides a good service and I am not aware of any serious concerns about the quality of the service provided. I am aware that in some parts of the country—a minority of areas—there are some concerns about the way in which the probation service is managed, but there are other ways to deal with those concerns, such as a shake-up of the probation board or a serious conversation with the management. I do not see why the entire service should be turned inside out to deal with problems that exist in only one or two areas.

On the issue of the reoffending rate, my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow made the point that it was not among the targets that had been set. It is only a very recent argument. We can all think of many reasons—not least the chronic overcrowding in our prisons and the difficulties in providing education and rehabilitation services—why the rate remains stubbornly high.

There may be a case for shaking up the probation service in those few areas with a problem, but there is no general problem that needs fixing. As other hon. Members have remarked, it is only three years since the last reorganisation in the probation service and there has to be a limit. I shall support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend this evening.

Photo of John Denham John Denham Chair, Home Affairs Committee

As other hon. Members have done, I wish to make it clear that even those of us who believe that there is a case for change in the organisation of the structures of probation do not mean that as criticism of the professional probation officers who work in the service. They do not choose those structures, and they work hard and professionally in the vast majority of instances. I want to make that point clear.

It is a matter of great regret to me that the Government resisted the request from the Home Affairs Committee to give the Bill pre-legislative scrutiny. Such scrutiny assists the House in its work and some of the issues on which the Government have recently made concessions—such as the welcome concession on the issue of court report—could have been highlighted, resolved and solved before the Bill was formally introduced into the House, had it been subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. The very important commitment that my hon. Friend the Minister made earlier this afternoon on requiring regional offender managers to take full account of local area agreements—a significant change in the structure of the Bill in terms of getting probation services to work with local authorities and other agencies, including the health service and mental health services—could have been addressed at an earlier stage. I believe that the Government would be facing less difficulty today if proper draft scrutiny of the Bill had taken place. I say that about nearly every Home Office Bill, because the Government almost always refuse draft scrutiny. I live in hope that, one day, we will handle these matters a little better.

On the substance of the Bill, although some problems exist, I believe that we should start moving in the direction that it sets out. We should not reject it, which is what I understand the Opposition parties, and possibly some of my colleagues, have decided to do this afternoon. Rejecting the Bill would send out entirely the wrong signal, as would accepting the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Mr. Gerrard. It would suggest that we are resistant to change in the provision of some of our probation services.

My hon. Friend Mr. Mullin said, in effect, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." I admire the work that he has done on these matters, but I remind the House of the report from the Home Affairs Committee on prison regimes and their role in reducing reoffending. Like many earlier reports, it highlights the catastrophic breakdown in the process by which prisoners make the transition from prison to the community. That need not happen: there are no reasons why current partnership arrangements should not have delivered a more seamless service, but the reality is that very few offenders get a managed transition that deals seamlessly with their needs in terms of housing, education and employment, as well as possibly providing marital or relationship counselling for those who want to get back with their partners. Meeting offenders' needs in those ways is the key to reducing reoffending.

On paper, there is no barrier preventing the existence of such a service. However, the fact that it does not exist should tell us that we ought to be prepared to countenance some radical change.

Photo of Patrick Hall Patrick Hall Labour, Bedford

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be aware that section 10 of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 provides that the Secretary of State can intervene when a probation board is underperforming. If some of the matters that he has just cited are causing problems, would not it be worth trying that route first?

Photo of John Denham John Denham Chair, Home Affairs Committee

It is certainly arguable that it would have been better if, over the past four or five years, that power had been tested—to destruction, as it were—to see how adequate it is. However, every Member of this House must make a judgment about the current provisions in respect of returning offenders to our communities, a problem with which we are all familiar. Do we feel that the service generally provides ex-offenders almost everywhere with what they need, and that the failure in some areas needs to be addressed by a power of intervention by the Secretary of State? Or do we suspect that the great majority of prisoners leaving prison, in most parts of the country, do not get the support that they need?

The Home Affairs Committee looked at prison regimes, and found that the latter possibility obtained. That is not the fault of the probation officers who have the responsibility to provide the service to prisoners; it is just that the present structures stand in the way of the provision of the more seamless service and the support that offenders need.

A few years ago, the social exclusion unit produced a report on reducing reoffending. It is arguably the best evidence-based piece of social policy published by any part of this Government since 1997, but very few of its recommendations—in respect of housing, employment, support for families, education, mental health services and drug treatment, and all the other provision that needs to be made to reduce reoffending—have been delivered. That also suggests that our existing structures are not delivering, and that the failure is a large one and not confined to a few localities.

Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Minister (Energy), Trade & Industry

May I take the right hon. Gentleman back to what he said about the ability of the Secretary of State to control probation policy in general, as opposed to giving directions to particular boards? He will be familiar with paragraph 14 of schedule 1, which gives the new trusts a duty to

"comply with any general or specific directions given to it by the Secretary of State".

As far as I can see, that means that the Bill retains the ability to make policy changes nationally. However, does he agree that amendment (a) would mean that such changes would have to go through the local level, and could not be imposed directly at the national level?

Photo of John Denham John Denham Chair, Home Affairs Committee

I think that Ministers' ability to influence what happens at local level should be stronger than it has been. I know that that is controversial, but I am one of those who have always been convinced that some element of community sentences should be carried out in uniform, where that is appropriate. Many Ministers have held that view over the past few years, but any implementation of such a policy has always been blocked by the autonomy of probation services.

We can debate whether it is desirable for probation services to be able to block policy development in that way. I believe that it is not.

Photo of John Denham John Denham Chair, Home Affairs Committee

If I may, I should like to make a little progress before I give way to my hon. Friend.

In my view, we need to countenance change and open up the procedures. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow made the perfectly fair point that the Bill as it stands could mean that almost everything goes over to the private or voluntary sectors. However, a Bill such as this is almost inevitably drafted in that way, as it is difficult to incorporate in legislation a fixed percentage that becomes a target, limit or cap.

Although I believe that it is desirable to open the system up to new providers—and to providers that can provide the whole of a service and not merely work as subsidiaries to existing probation officers—the Government must take great care about the pace of change. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will bear that in mind.

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Photo of John Denham John Denham Chair, Home Affairs Committee

I shall give way first to my hon. Friend John McDonnell, and then to my hon. Friend.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

I want to get this matter clear, for the record. My right hon. Friend says that we need a discussion about change. I am secretary of the parliamentary justice unions group, which has met representatives of most of the organisations involved in the consultation process of the past four years. None has resisted change, but 96 per cent. of respondents to the consultation said that they did not support the Government's change proposals. Instead, they wanted to look at a co-operative approach at the local level to determine who best provided the service. Most of the people working in the sector have promoted that approach to Ministers, but the Government have resisted because of their obsession with privatisation.

Photo of John Denham John Denham Chair, Home Affairs Committee

As I think my hon. Friend will acknowledge, I have been a fairly persistent critic in the House and outside of some of the ways in which the Government have tried to introduce market mechanisms in other public services such as the NHS, so I cannot easily be put into the category of those who have an ideological drive to invoke the private sector—at least I do not think so. However, if all the relevant public sector partners in certain existing parts of the public sector were asked to work together to produce a better service, so many people who came to the table would have reasons not to change and would have excuses not to do things differently that nothing would ever change. That is the nettle we have to grasp this afternoon— [ Interruption. ] My hon. Friend is chuntering away, but—

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

Will my right hon. Friend allow me to come back on that point?

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

The consultation the Government undertook was not just with public sector providers; it was with the voluntary and private sectors. Ninety-six per cent. of the respondents urged the Government not to go down the route now proposed, and most of them urged the Government to look at the Scottish model of co-operation.

Photo of John Denham John Denham Chair, Home Affairs Committee 3:30 pm, 28th February 2007

I, too, have looked at the Scottish model. I entirely accept that I may be proved wrong, but my judgment is that it is too soggy to produce the radical change necessary at local level. I believe in partnership and co-operation, but in some circumstances opening a service to a new group of people who can deliver it differently is the only way to achieve radical change. The challenge to my hon. Friend the Minister is to get the pace of that change right.

I worry about some of the indicative targets set by the Home Secretary, because it is clear that if we decide to chase a target, the difficulty is that the contract will go to those with the management capacity to fulfil it, which will not necessarily produce the type of change we want. The type of new service that brings together, for example, a local authority housing department, a further education college and drug treatment and other services in a local area is much more likely to develop at district council level than regional level. My hon. Friend the Minister must take care that he does not drive the process too fast.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I have listened carefully to the comments of the right hon. Gentleman and of John McDonnell. Is the right hon. Gentleman convinced that we need a Bill at all to achieve what he wants, either at the pace he wants or at the pace the Government want?

Photo of John Denham John Denham Chair, Home Affairs Committee

I believe that we need a Bill, because although there are challenges—to say the least—in respect of a regional commissioning structure, it is not clear where else that function could be handled. I cannot see how it could be done easily under existing legislation. I know there is a debate about that point and my view may be wrong, but sometimes it is better that such things are set out in legislation. I do not want to take too much of the House's time, but perhaps I could give an analogy. When I was a Health Minister I introduced all the legislation that set up primary care trusts. Arguably, no legislation was required, but it was better to have all the provisions in one piece of legislation.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

My right hon. Friend is dealing with a point that is of concern to all colleagues—the issue of how much should be set out in targets. We think that there is an amount that could be contestable, but what drives us is not achieving targets for putting services out to the private sector. The question for us is: who can provide the best service? My right hon. Friend is entirely right; we are listening and we have said that we will be cautious. What drives us should be finding the best provider, and in most circumstances that is likely to be the public sector.

Photo of John Denham John Denham Chair, Home Affairs Committee

My hon. Friend is right. The result of the process will be that many years down the line the greatest part of the service will be provided by those who provide it at present, but opening up to new ways of delivering it will enable much more rapid change to take place across the service as a whole than would otherwise have happened.

Photo of Martin Salter Martin Salter Labour, Reading West

My right hon. Friend is making a most helpful contribution. Does he agree that our hon. Friend the Minister would be well advised when he responds to the debate to move away from the ill-advised comments that we have heard previously about setting targets for contestability? Should not he respond to Members' concerns by accepting limits to contestability, so that where it is used it is focused on services that are not delivering rather than being an ideological objective in its own right?

Photo of John Denham John Denham Chair, Home Affairs Committee

I welcome my hon. Friend's comments. There is a huge difference between saying that 10 per cent. of a service should be open to different providers and setting a target that 10 per cent. of a service should be transferred to different providers. I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend the Minister said and found it extremely reassuring; he set out exactly the approach we should be taking. An artificial target that regional offender managers have to meet because their careers are on the line is not merely pointless; it is actually damaging.

My hon. Friend the Minister responded as fully as I could expect to the point I wanted to end on, so I shall conclude my remarks.

Photo of Patrick Hall Patrick Hall Labour, Bedford

I rise in support of amendments Nos. 1 and 2 and amendment (a) to new clause 11, which were tabled by my hon. Friend Mr. Gerrard.

I have listened carefully to the interesting contributions to the debate, especially that of my right hon. Friend Mr. Denham. However, I remain unconvinced that the Bill is truly necessary, as I think that everything that we want to see achieved and all the progress that needs to be made on tackling reoffending, increasing the role of the voluntary sector, meeting performance targets and enhancing public protection can be broadly met under existing arrangements. The claim that abolishing probation boards and putting all commissioning power in the hands of regional Home Office officials will tackle reoffending is, I feel, not backed up by the evidence. Nor have I heard a convincing set of arguments about that.

I am not in the least bit complacent about tackling reoffending, but it has been pointed out to me, and backed up with some real examples of individual experience in Bedfordshire, that some serial repeat offenders have, with the support of the probation service, changed their behaviour significantly. If, however, in the two-year period after sentencing, an individual offends just once, that is presented as a total failure. I would like to make it clear that the reoffending is absolutely unacceptable—I am not defending it at all—but what if someone who was regularly violent or made a career out of burglary stopped that behaviour but stole cigarettes from a supermarket once during that two-year period? Obviously, that is not acceptable, but in terms of its impact on the public, we need to view it in a significantly different way from violence or burglary. The statistics, however, do not acknowledge the need to do so at all.

As everyone who has contributed to the debate has made clear, the role of the voluntary and community sector in the criminal justice system is extremely important. From what I have learned over the past days and weeks, I believe that it has not been sufficiently developed. Its role is important for a number of reasons, but perhaps especially because it can specialise and fine-tune its services to all kinds of requirements in different parts of the country. At its best, it is rooted in the community and possesses local knowledge.

Most importantly of all, the voluntary and community sector is, and is seen to be, independent of the state. That is crucial because it makes it more likely to gain the confidence of offenders who may, quite understandably, have a jaundiced view of the authorities. The independence of that sector is therefore more likely to assist in reducing offending and in supporting ex-offenders into training, employment and accommodation, which are essential ingredients to improving public protection as well as improving the lives of those people. I totally accept the importance of increasing that sector's role and I support the intention to do so.

The Government's target for the probation service's budget it that 5 per cent. of it, and then 10 per cent. by April next year, should be open to competition. That is supportable because it increases the chances of greater involvement by the voluntary sector.

A circular of 26 February written by Clinks, a membership body of voluntary organisations working within the criminal justice system, strongly supports and understandably welcomes the Government's intention to increase the sector's role. However, Clinks expresses two key concerns. First, it states:

"We do not think a series of competitions in which voluntary and private organisations are pitted against the probation service is the best model. We are concerned too that the arrangements for letting contracts for work should reflect the highly local nature of some of the most effective projects and activities. Regional commissioning and competitions organised by the Home Office could squeeze out the small, local innovative organisations that can make a difference."

Secondly, it states:

"There are some core areas of work carried out by the Probation Service that Clinks considers should continue to be undertaken by the state, particularly writing reports for courts and the parole board, which make recommendations about sentences/release; and aspects of public protection work in relation to high risk offenders. Apart from potential conflicts of interests which would arise for private and voluntary sector providers, there are important issues of justice and accountability that should not be discounted."

I also note from a letter to the Home Secretary from Katie Nutley, the chair of the St. Giles Trust—which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has helpfully made available to me—that, while she rightly welcomes the Government's wish to boost the role of the voluntary sector, she also states that offender management and the enforcement of court orders and public protection

"are rightly preserved in the public sector where they are accountable to the authorities."

That is one of the main questions before us today.

The Home Secretary has clearly made a compromise in new clause 11, as has been acknowledged, over the writing of court reports and the supervision of serious offenders. He has moved towards the position advocated in amendments Nos. 1 and 2—a position that is widely supported not just within the probation service but, as I have illustrated, within parts of the voluntary sector. However, the Home Secretary and the Ministers have not settled the matter beyond the next three years or so. New clause 12 allows for the repeal of the provisions in new clause 11. That signals the possibility that court reports and the supervision of high-risk offenders will be open to competition. Yes, the public sector could well win some or all of those competitions, but there is a risk that it would not.

There are risks inherent in putting those probation services out into the private sector, particularly in regard to issues of public accountability and scrutiny in relation to commercial confidentiality. There are also potential conflicts of interest and the inevitable temptation for Home Office civil servants, who will be the regional commissioners, to go for the lowest tender. That raises an important question about the competition. Will it be conducted on the basis of the disastrous compulsory competitive tendering regime that the previous Conservative Government imposed on local government, or of the more sensible best value approach introduced by this Government? We really need to know the answer to that question. Speculation on that point is bound to arise because of new clause 12.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and his ministerial colleagues could inject a great deal of comfort and stability into the proposed changes if new clause 12 were withdrawn. In any event, with or without new clause 12, it is essential that development on the ground is closely monitored from a quality assurance perspective in the years ahead, so that we can learn from best practice and take corrective measures when things go wrong. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to acknowledge the need to monitor the process, and to show a willingness to establish such a mechanism, with reports being made available to the House and to partner organisations.

One of my fears about the Bill is that it could trigger a process across the country in which local details get lost and forgotten or are not even noticed. I am informed, for example, that the Bedfordshire probation service contracts with a number of small local organisations to place one or two offenders, supervised by probation officers, undertaking unpaid work. Those contracts exist only because of trust between people who know each other at local level. I cannot see how the Home Office regional commissioner—known as ROM, the regional offender manager—will be able to deal with all those arrangements. There simply are not enough hours in the day. The Government's answer is to say that local area agreements will cover the matter, and that the ROMs will have to take on board what is in the agreements.

In Bedfordshire local area agreements are not particularly well developed and I am not sure whether they are anywhere in the country—others may comment on that. The Government propose to put local area agreements on a much stronger footing through the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, which is currently in Committee. Clause 79 of that Bill lists organisations and individuals who will be statutory partners with local councils in drawing up the local area agreements. The local probation board is listed as one of those. I wish to raise some points about how that will work with regard to tackling reoffending and helping to keep local knowledge and local contacts intact.

Under the proposals in the Offender Management Bill, the chief probation officer will be the only statutory partner present who is unable to commission services. Others around the table, such as the chief constable, will be able to commission them. Should not the regional offender manager also be a partner? I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will heed that point. Furthermore, it will be up to the local council and its partners on the local area agreement to determine the priorities from a national list. I understand that there is national list of about 200 points and that each local area agreement will have to prioritise 35 of them. What if reoffending is not seen as a particular local priority? Perhaps it should be, but I do not think that it has to be. Those matters have to be addressed.

The mechanism of how local area agreements will work is not known at this point and will be left to local determination. That is the Government's intention. However, we need some reassurance about how that mechanism will work with regard to tackling reoffending and enhancing rehabilitation and public safety. We need to know that local knowledge will not be lost. If the local area agreement says something in detail about how these issues are to be delivered—perhaps involving a continuation or enhancement of what already happens—we need to know how the regional offender manager, the Home Office official, will take that message on board and act on it, because that is the only mechanism whereby those things can be commissioned. There will not be a local commissioner on these matters. We have to address that.

In conclusion, I want to repeat first that I am disappointed with Government new clause 12, which is not necessary, secondly that there is a need to address the point about best value, thirdly that there is a need to monitor and report on progress in the years ahead, and fourthly that there is a need to consider how local area agreements will work and whether regional offender managers will be present in that respect. I look to my right hon. and hon. Friends to address those matters.

Photo of Judy Mallaber Judy Mallaber Labour, Amber Valley 3:45 pm, 28th February 2007

I appreciate that my hon. Friend the Minister has listened to concerns, specifically on local accountability, although as the Bill proceeds I hope to hear more on the precise relationship between regional commissioners and local agencies and local area agreements. I also appreciate the amendment that excludes from the private sector the writing of court reports and assistance to the courts. From his comments earlier and the discussions that I have had with him, I understand that that would include, inevitably, a substantial element of the core work of probation officers in managing and supervising offenders, which goes along with their work in doing those court reports.

However, I would appreciate it if the Minister clarified exactly what is covered and the extent to which the provision already covers an exclusion from the private sector in relation to the purposes in clause 1(1)(c) on

"the supervision and rehabilitation of persons charged with or convicted of offences".

I would appreciate knowing a bit more about how far the exclusion in relation to assistance to the courts already covers a definite commitment that the probation service would continue to provide the services relating to the supervision and management of offenders. That is covered in amendment No. 1, which has been signed by a number of hon. Members. I urge the Minister to consider further other areas that should be excluded from contestability and left with the probation service.

As several hon. Members have said, when I have had discussions about what should happen regarding the probation service and the management of offenders, no one has said that the voluntary sector should not be engaged with the criminal justice system when it has appropriate skills and services to offer that can help to deal with offenders. There are two good examples of the work of the voluntary sector in Derbyshire: Addaction provides drugs programmes in the system from police stations onwards; and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children provides sex offender programmes. Both those programmes do not count against the probation service's budget, so when we hear people bandying about figures on how much of the service's budget goes to the voluntary sector, they do not include such programmes. I understand that one of the Government's priorities is that the voluntary sector should be able to provide such imaginative and innovative services.

Will the Minister consider seriously whether approved premises, to which amendment No. 1 refers, should be excluded? When he met probation officers with my hon. Friend Paddy Tipping and me, he said that the child sex offender review would be likely to recommend the strengthening of the approved premises sector, which is made up of 100-odd premises that house dangerous offenders who have left custody on licence. A dedicated and skilled work force in those premises carry out substantial supervision and active intervention.

The public would not understand why we would allow hostels housing dangerous offenders, including many child sex offenders, to be handed over to Group 4, but that would be allowed under the Bill. Some of the most dangerous and prolific offenders in the community are managed in such premises, and the premises provide vital intelligence to offender managers and the police, which, if an offender's behaviour deteriorates, can often lead to enforcement, including a return to custody.

I ask the Minister to consider the evidence that although there is an intention that approved premises will be excluded from initial moves towards privatisation, there are examples of such services being prepared for possible contestability and privatisation. Can he say specifically that approved premises should be kept in the public sector? Should not the Bill provide that such premises are the purview of the probation service? It would be hard to justify taking such premises away from the probation service. Does he think that there any other aspects of the system that should be subject to exclusion?

Photo of Tom Levitt Tom Levitt PPS (Rt Hon Hilary Benn, Secretary of State), Department for International Development

Over the past few weeks, my position has moved from that on Second Reading, when, as a loyal Labour Back Bencher, I was happy to go along with the Bill, to that of today, when I feel passionate that the Bill must be passed in its current form. That has happened because of my experiences over the past few weeks, and I can cite three examples in particular. First, I received 800 responses to a questionnaire about crime and justice that I put out in my constituency. Among the clear messages that came from the questionnaire were that reoffending rates were too high, that we could not be complacent about that and that we had to take drastic action to ensure that reoffending rates came down.

A series of consultation events was held around my constituency with magistrates, police officers, people who worked with ex-offenders and, principally, members of the public. At those events, we also heard a strong message about reoffending. A chap called Bob Auld, who is well known to me and many in the High Peak Labour party, came to one of the events. He would be proud to be called a Stalinist and the last defender of the producer interest. Bob told us that he had worked with ex-offenders many times over the years in different circumstances. He said that the Bill has to go through, and his message was that we must shake off our complacency about reoffending. He put it in terms of having seen the light; I am sure that it was not quite as dramatic as that.

My third experience in recent weeks was to visit the Hollowford outdoor centre in Castleton in Hope Valley in my constituency and meet a group of young offenders. I saw the work that was being done with them by that charity and the interest of the people involved in working with those young people. Like my right hon. Friend Mr. Denham, I do not decry the passion and interest of probation officers, but there is an extra quality that can be brought by those who have chosen voluntarily to give their time to charitable causes such as working with ex-offenders to stop reoffending. By talking to the young offenders, I could tell that the people whom I met were having that effect.

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is aware of the Circles project that operates in the Thames valley. It is run by a group of Quakers and works on an individual basis with former sex offenders. It has been going for several years, and I understand that it has other projects besides that in the Thames valley. It claims a zero reoffending rate because of the nature of the support given to individuals by people working voluntarily. Whatever the figures are, I am certain that the project gives us a model that could be replicated and built on elsewhere, and the voluntary sector is quite capable of delivering it.

No matter what we have heard, there are major players and, indeed, minor local players in the voluntary sector who want to be involved. They feel that they have a contribution to make to reducing reoffending by supporting individuals to ensure that they have the capacity to live their life without offending. We need to have those people on board, working with the professionals in the sector. If the outcome is that only 10 or 15 per cent. of this work eventually goes out to the voluntary sector, so be it.

Photo of Tom Levitt Tom Levitt PPS (Rt Hon Hilary Benn, Secretary of State), Department for International Development

I will not because I know that others want to speak before the Minister winds up.

The qualitative difference, the influence on the rest of provision, will be significant. The Bill will make a real difference in reducing reoffending rates and help us to achieve our aim of helping people out of offending in the first place.

Photo of Ian Lucas Ian Lucas Labour, Wrexham

I rise to oppose the amendments in the name of my hon. Friend Mr. Gerrard, not because I disrespect him or the way that he has dealt with matters throughout the proceedings on the Bill but because I have real concerns about the effect of the amendments.

We have a system in which there is co-operation and good practice between local probation services and institutions in the voluntary and private sectors. I have met probation officers from my area to discuss their concerns about the Bill at length. I have long-standing working relationships with the probation service because of the time that I spent as a criminal law solicitor. I know that there have always been good working relationships between the voluntary and private sectors and the probation service. My concern about the proposals on which we are going to vote is that they could prejudice those relationships.

Earlier we had a discussion about sex offenders and the introduction of polygraph tests. I referred to an institution in my constituency which works with young sex offenders, including children, who are given the highest and most professional level of care to deal with the profound difficulties that they experience. It is an intensely specialised area and an intensely professional one. The individuals who work in that organisation have a very professional background in social services which has developed over many years. The institution is, however—horror of horrors—private. My clear reading of the amendments is that they would prevent that institution from delivering the services that it provides to very damaged young people in my community.

What is clear is that the wording adopted is such that, if the amendment were made, the Secretary of State could provide services "solely"—the word used in the amendment—with probation trusts. We are therefore being asked to exclude voluntary and private sector providers from providing such valuable services.

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow 4:00 pm, 28th February 2007

The wording is not intended to stop any probation trust contracting with a voluntary sector provider. I accept that it will stop the Secretary of State contracting directly with a voluntary sector provider. That is the clear intention. If the Government were minded to accept the general principle, I am sure that parliamentary counsel could draw up a suitable minor amendment to provide what we all agree we want.

Photo of Ian Lucas Ian Lucas Labour, Wrexham

I am to be asked to vote on a particular amendment and my reading of it is as I have described. For that reason, I shall oppose the amendment.

I ask other hon. Members to think seriously about the effect of voting in favour of the proposed amendments, because they might prejudice high-quality and important care that is being provided in our communities by voluntary sector and private sector organisations. To vote in favour of the amendments would serve the political expediency of our opponents, but it would not serve the interests of our constituents.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am grateful for the contributions made by hon. Members on both sides of the House, because I know that their views are well held. I would never attack anyone for feeling strong emotion about the subject—except perhaps Mr. Garnier, who set out the Conservative party position, which I will deal with later.

Fifty-eight per cent. of offenders go on to commit another crime within two years and more than 50 per cent. of crime is committed by people who have already been through the criminal justice system. As hon. Members, especially Labour Members, have said, it is not a problem of resources: the budget has increased by 40 per cent. in five years to more than £900 million this year—a record—and the amount spent per offender has also increased, by 12 per cent. between 2001-02 and 2005-06. I hope that hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friends, acknowledge the investment that has gone into the probation service and the increase in the number of probation officers.

What we are saying is that we want—we need—to do more, because as my right hon. Friend Mr. Denham said, it is important to move forward, not backward. I consider the commitment of my hon. Friend Mr. Gerrard and other hon. Friends to be of the highest calibre, but their amendment would do what my hon. Friend Ian Lucas said. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow admitted the technical drafting problems, but said that if the Government supported the principle, we could draft a new amendment. The Government will not do that because we do not share his view of the four elements that he wants to be protected.

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

So it is not the drafting.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham made the point that if he votes for the amendment on the amendment paper today and it is passed, certain agencies will be excluded from consideration. I am simply making that clear to the House.

To support the amendment is to go backward. The amendment covers the provision of approved premises—a subject raised by my hon. Friend Judy Mallaber—which, if it were made, could be provided only by the probation service. At present, approved premises are provided by organisations such as the Langley House Trust; the amendment would stop that happening. I understand where my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow is coming from, but the amendment would do those things and take us backward, which is clearly not where we need to go. We want to move forward cautiously. That is why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I listened to the concerns put to us, and why we tabled new clauses 11 and 12, which set out the relationships that we think are important. We were told that court reports are a significant element of what needs to be protected, in the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow. We understood that, and that is why new clauses 11 and 12 were introduced.

I say to my hon. Friend Patrick Hall that clauses 11 and 12 go together. That is part of negotiation and achieving consensus, and we thought that we were moving in the right direction. Most hon. Members will know of my trade union background; I thought that, in negotiations, people on both sides gave a bit, but clearly that is not the understanding of some of my hon. Friends, as there has been no movement towards what we are trying to achieve.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen has a wealth of experience, as he is not only a former Minister but the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee. He hit the nail on the head when he talked about the need for us to look for innovation and new ways forward. He was concerned about the pace of the changes that we are trying to undertake. I agree with him and, perhaps more importantly, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary does, too. That is why we have tried to be accommodating. We have tried to understand that the ideological background to some of the concerns is a worry that we are talking about pure privatisation, but we are not. The measures are about making sure that we raise capacity, so that we have the best providers. In 2006, we announced our intention to complete up to £250 million-worth of probation business. Both the public and voluntary sectors can bid for that work, and that is the important issue. The measures are about raising standards and making sure that the best providers are in place.

My hon. Friend Martin Salter mentioned the letter from the YMCA, but that is only one letter. Hon. Members have received a number of contributions from voluntary sector bodies that say that they can and want to do more, but are prevented from doing so. Surely that is not right. We have strengthened local accountability, and hon. Members have accepted what we said about strengthening local area agreements to make sure that links are in place. The excellent work that has already been achieved, to which hon. Members have referred, can be built on. We do not want to remove the good work that takes place; we want to build on it and extend it further.

I share the enthusiasm of my hon. Friend Tom Levitt, who mentioned Circles of Support, a voluntary sector organisation that mentors sex offenders, and that works in difficult circumstances and achieves a superb reduction in reoffending rates, and that is what we want to happen, but under the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, it would be prevented from doing that. If a public sector provider is good enough, it will have as much chance as anyone else of winning the work, and I think that in many cases, it will; we have no problem with that.

We have referred to the number of organisations that support what we are trying to achieve. It must be unique—at least in my time as a Minister, as far as I can recollect—for the Local Government Association, numerous voluntary sector organisations and the CBI to accept what we are trying to achieve. That leads me to the role of the Opposition. What we see from the Conservative Opposition is outright opportunism, again. They supported the Bill on Second Reading. They said that they sought improvements to it, but that if those improvements were made, and we ensured that there was no top-down structure, they would support the Bill. Clearly, they are not prepared to do that; they are prepared to put party politics before attacking reoffending and related issues.

I particularly welcome the statement from Mr. Martin Narey, a former director general of the Prison Service. His background is in public service—he supported the introduction of private sector operations in the prison regime—and he now works for Barnado's, which is one of the main charities supporting children. He says that more can be done.

My hon. Friends should accept our assurances in the spirit in which they are given. We will not move too fast, and we will take time to make sure that we do this properly. We have put safeguards in place to ensure accountability, so we will achieve what we are trying to achieve, which is reducing reoffending rates and the number of people in prison, and making sure that offenders are rehabilitated and integrated into society. If we achieve that, we will achieve a great deal for our constituents.

I was asked what type of activity is covered by the Government amendments. The answer is all the work that the probation service does with the courts, including pre-sentencing and other reports, advice on breach hearings, bail and general assistance. As for the issue of offender management, we have made it clear that for the next few years we expect the supervision of individual cases and reports to courts and the Parole Board to remain in the public sector, which has inherited expertise in that area. Public protection is important, and we do not want to put the public at risk, which is why we want to proceed cautiously and make sure that we take people with us.

My hon. Friends' ideological fears are fundamentally misplaced. This is not about privatisation but about making sure that we have the best provision to tackle reoffending. Multi-agency public arrangements, which are unique to the UK, are in place. It was this Government who introduced those arrangements, to make sure that the public were protected and that responsible agencies worked together. Across the world, MAPPA is regarded as a step forward, as it has established partnership between agencies which people did not think could work together. The hon. and learned Member for Harborough attacked NOMS, but 95 per cent. of its budget is spent on the front line. NOMS has been set up with existing resources, and it employs 69,500 front-line providers and 2,500 back-office staff, so it is not top heavy. I hope that the House has listened to what we have said, and backs the consensus that this is an acceptable compromise by supporting the Government amendments.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time.

Amendment proposed to the proposed new clause: (a), in line 2, leave out from 'trust' to end of line 8 and insert—

'(2) In this section "restricted probation provision" means probation provision which—

(a) is made for one of the probation purposes set out in section 1(1)(a), (c) and (f);

(b) is for the provision of assistance to the Parole Board;

(c) is for the management of approved premises within the meaning of section 9.'.— [Mr. Gerrard.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House proceeded to a Division.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for a door to the Lobby to be shut and for a Government Whip to stand blocking the entrance? The Whip has now moved away, but was standing in the doorway.

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Fortunately, the issue has now been resolved.

The House having divided: Ayes 111, Noes 267.

Division number 61 Orders of the Day — New Clause 11 — Restriction on certain arrangements under section 3(2)

Aye: 111 MPs

No: 267 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name


Nos: A-Z by last name


Question accordingly negatived.

Clause added to the Bill

It being more than three and a half hours after commencement of proceedings on the motion, Madam Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that hour, pursuant to Order [this day].